‘The Music Man’ takes a knee and gives thanks
Lloyd Harris Jr., 74, is a towering man, which is partly the reason he takes a knee in his third-grade music classroom at Edward Hynes Elementary School on Harrison Avenue.
From his crouched position on the floor, Harris is at eye level with his 8-year-old students. Then Harris bends down a little more and wraps his hand – the size of a catcher’s mitt – around the tip of a student’s right shoe. With the precision of a metronome, Harris lifts the ball of the student’s foot into the air and gently pushes it back to the floor, rhythmically keeping time with the music.
“I love my babies,” Harris says. “I love them to death. They want to learn, learn, learn. I was on my knees with the kids one day, and my principal came in. I told her, ‘You’ve got to get these kids to understand this metronomic beat. Once they get this into their system, then you can move them.’ That’s been my secret.”
Harris has been The Music Man most of his life. At the age of 4, he took sick with ringworm and had to spend time recuperating at his house on Soniat Street in uptown New Orleans. With the windows open, he heard mysterious sounds floating from the house next door. Mrs. Grace Neal was the neighborhood piano teacher.
Harris pleaded with his mother to take piano lessons, and even though Mrs. Neal usually didn’t take students so young, she made an exception. Harris’ mother, a single mom and a public school teacher, used the pay-as-you-go plan at Werlein’s and bought her son an $800 piano. This was very serious business, Harris learned.
“Mrs. Neal told me once, ‘Louis, you didn’t practice this week,’ and when that got back to my mom, she put an old-type clock in front of me and told me, ‘I want 45 minutes on the piano, and then you can go outside,’” Harris said.
Harris’ mom did the same thing with spelling, drilling her son with 10 words and, as lagniappe, asking for their definitions. As Harris played his piano scales every afternoon, he looked at the minute hand on the clock, wishing it would go into ragtime mode.
“I could hear the boys throwing the football outside,” Harris said.
Harris began playing the clarinet in sixth grade, and when he was a senior at Walter L. Cohen High School, trumpeter Al Hirt made a special appearance in the band room. “Jumbo” was a large man, and he sat down in a chair at the front of the room and began rolling up his trouser’s leg.
“You could see all these cuts and bruises,” Harris said. “He told us, ‘I wanted to be a football player, but I got hurt.’ Then he picked up his trumpet and just lit us up. He told us, ‘This is serious business. If you take it seriously, you can be a success.’”
That talk from a New Orleans music legend confirmed everything for Harris. He was convinced he could be the next Nat King Cole. He would go to college, refine his craft and then hit the road to chase his star.
At the “Wa Lo Co” (Walter Louis Cohen) Talent Show in 1957, Harris performed “Interlude,” a bluesy piece for the band and clarinet written by John Morrissey of Tulane University. He did it so well he got a scholarship offer from Xavier University, but he decided to follow his friends to Southern University in Baton Rouge because of the school’s powerhouse band. After a week of sleeping six to a room, Harris became homesick, but his mother told him he had to tough out the semester.
Then she called Blessed Sacrament Sister Elise Sisson, head of the Xavier music department, to see if her son still would qualify for the scholarship. “She told my mom to let me get a good dose of Southern so that when I came back here, I was going to work and do what I’m supposed to do,” Harris said.
The diminutive nun, a former singer with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, laid down the law when Harris regaled her with his dreams of becoming a jazz performer.
“No, you’re not,” she told him. “You’re going to be a great teacher.”
Harris heard the nun’s marching orders and fell in line. “She explained everything to me, and my gosh, it’s a miracle, but everything she told me came through,” Harris said.
When Harris took the baton as a teacher at age 22, he rotated among nine elementary schools each week. “I had a lot of energy, and I wanted to work,” he said. “I wasn’t worried about the money. It was just the idea that I wanted to create bands.”
In 1967, he transferred to Alfred Lawless Junior High, where morning practices started at 7 a.m. before school and afternoon sessions lasted till 5. He decided to enter his band for the first time at the Louisiana Music Education Association’s annual competition in Hammond.
This was still the dark ages of civil rights. When the Lawless band walked onto the auditorium stage, the audience stood up and left.
“But somebody forgot to close the doors,” recalled Arthur Hardy, a friend of Harris and fellow band director who has gone on to become better known as Mr. Mardi Gras. “When the band started playing, the audience came back. They had to see if what their ears were hearing was possibly true.”
Hardy said Harris and his Lawless band won more than the sweepstakes award that day. At a 2012 dinner honoring Harris for his 50 years of music education as well as his 1996 induction into the Louisiana Music Educators’ Hall of Fame, Hardy told his friend: “You melted hearts and you changed minds that day.”
Harris grew up Baptist, but his love and respect for Sister Elise kept him open to becoming Catholic one day. In 1970, right after a halftime show in which his fledgling McDonogh 35 band went note-for-note with St. Augustine’s Marching 100, Harris was told his mother, only 50, had suffered an aneurysm. He rushed to the hospital from the stadium, and she died that night.
The pastor at the Baptist church didn’t want Harris to put his mother’s picture on the cover of the funeral program. Harris did it anyway. Then, one night Harris was driving by Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on North Rampart Street, and the lights were blazing through the stained-glass windows for Midnight Mass.
“I saw those bright lights, and it’s amazing how I can say this, but I thought, ‘This is where I should be,” Harris said.
Harris met and befriended Oblate Father Peter Rogers, who let Harris’ band use the then-vacant St. Jude Community Center across the street to practice on Saturdays and during the summer. Since the early 1970s, Harris has attended 7 a.m. daily Mass at St. Jude’s. He sits in the front pew on the right, and he leads the singing, a capella, for his St. Jude family.
“I go every morning to pray and thank God that he allowed me another day and to have so much success come out of it,” Harris said. “When I miss Mass, I feel so funny that day. That’s why I don’t miss.”
At 7:30 a.m., he drives to Hynes School in Lakeview and prepares to meet his 90 third-graders. There is music to learn. Directing their breath through the holes in their green plastic recorders, the students learn about music, math and discipline, and they learn to love a gentle giant who is down on the floor cheering them on.
Harris, who can wake up every day at 4 a.m. without an alarm clock, always makes sure to get to his classroom a little early, before his babies arrive. This time, he gets down on both knees.
There is prayer in public schools.
“I kneel down and thank God for being able to have such a successful life and to be on this journey,” Harris said. “Sister Elise told me it was going to be like this. She was right in everything she said.”